In 1925, a high school biology teacher named John Scopes was found guilty of teaching the theory of evolution. Fifteen states drafted legislation to ban the teaching of evolution in schools, and Arkansas and Mississippi actually did restrict it by law.
Let that sink in for a minute: Eighty years ago this summer religious conservatives convicted a man of teaching the theory of evolution and tried to get it banned from the American education system altogether. The good news is, the Scopes conviction and the two state laws were eventually repealed. The bad news is, Scopes’ intellectual descendants are once again in peril.
The 1920’s were a real heyday for religious conservatives. Modernism was a growing, daunting force, but a fundamentalist wave of conservative Christian revivalism carried the decade. Fresh off their proclamation that the influenza epidemic of 1918 that killed 548,000 Americans in one year was God’s punishment for our sins (a notion they eerily re-evoke in reference to Hurricane Katrina), religious conservatives threw their halos into the political arena and set about saving their fellow man (and woman). They went after evolution and anything else they perceived to be a threat to their beliefs and values. They prayed and praised God. They preached and condemned. In the end, their greatest triumph was Prohibition.
Prohibition was such a disaster, however, that it bounced them out of major national politics and kept them out for decades. But now they’re back – in politics and in our personal lives – and they’re bent on forcing all of us to relive their same mistakes.
If a construction firm agrees to do work on a Planned Parenthood facility, religious conservatives barrage its office with harassing calls for weeks and threaten to make sure it never does work for a church or anyone affiliated with a church again.
If you try to have your brain-dead wife unplugged from the machines she’s been subsisting on for 14 years, so he she can finally be at peace, and pass on with some shred of dignity, you’re labeled a cold-hearted monster and your decision is snatched up as a political football for religious conservative politicians to use to keep their voter base riled up.
If you’re gay and you want to marry your partner and consummate your relationship with a lifelong, legally binding commitment, your whole lifestyle is “stoned” in public, and you’re condemned as a vile sexual deviate and denied the rights and privileges that your heterosexual counterparts defile and abuse on a daily basis.
If you’re a biology teacher, and you protest the idea of teaching creationism alongside evolution, you’re considered a pariah and half your students’ parents don’t want you teaching their kids anymore.
In fact, if you go to church and your brethren find out you didn’t vote “Christian” (and we all know what that means), well, you should probably start looking for another church.
These scenarios all appeared in the past year’s headlines. It took 80 years for the pendulum to swing back to the religious conservatives’ “prohibiting” ways, but is has, and they are mobilized. They’ve taken over the Republican Party so thoroughly that they can afford to run it with McCarthyist zeal, scoffing at compromises, eliminating checks and balances, and trampling all over what was once a Republican constant – laissez-faire government. They don’t believe in free speech, intellectual freedom, global warming, Halloween, stem cell research or short cheerleader skirts. They want God in the classrooms (in fact, they’re very suspicious of public education in general) and courtrooms, and they want the devil and his free-speech ways back in the closet.
If you don’t agree with them, you’re un-Christian and morally suspect. Which makes them wonder: Should people who are un-Christian and morally suspect even have a say? Certainly not on the United States Supreme Court.
Shortly after Sinclair Lewis published Elmer Gantry in 1927 – the seventh year of Prohibition – he accepted an invitation to speak at a Kansas City church. Once at the pulpit, he took out his watch and informed the congregation that he was giving God 15 minutes to prove His existence by striking him dead. Then he stared at his watch and waited.
Needless to say, God was a no-show and the congregation was shocked. They couldn’t very well wheel out a dunking stool and exorcise the bold author, but they would have liked to. Power was on their side in those days, and nary a freethinker was safe. Remember that when next a politician wraps himself in the flag, the Bible, and the cloak of righteousness.
E. R. Bills is a Fort Worth construction worker and part-time writer.